Republicans fret over 2012 friendly fire

LAS VEGAS — Republicans are worried the increasingly rancorous friendly fire among their presidential hopefuls could cost them their chance to beat President Obama in 2012.

For weeks, the venomous tone had been escalating as the first primaries rapidly approached and candidates fought against the notion that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was running away with the nomination.

But the hostile attacks reached a new threshold during the GOP debate Tuesday night that left audience members booing, the moderator speechless and pundits unsure of who came out on top.

“What happened last night was horrific. If you applaud what happened last night, then don’t come asking me in December of 2012 what happened,” GOP strategist Frank Luntz told activists Wednesday at the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

He warned that as the race stands now, Obama is headed for reelection — and Republicans will have nobody to blame but themselves.

The temptation to engage in biting personal attacks is particularly pressing for second-tier candidates, who risk getting lost in the shuffle if they don’t bait the media with eye-opening attacks. But even if those candidates drop out long before the primary convention, their attacks will likely stick around through the general election.

“The bickering does not help the Republican Party,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Wednesday, pledging not to air any 30-second attack ads against his presidential opponents.

It is difficult to tell just how attacks and ill will that linger from the primary could affect the GOP’s eventual nominee. In the 2008 presidential primary, Obama and then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Melania Trump puzzles with 'I really don't care' jacket Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report MORE (D-N.Y.) fought tooth-and-nail, but Clinton later became a dutiful Obama ally and now serves in his Cabinet as secretary of State.

Many have made the argument that coarse primaries toughen candidates up, helping them identify their weaknesses and strengths and putting them on better footing for the general election.

In the mean time, the acrimony is hurting Republican morale, threatening to undermine the party’s ability to turn out its base in 2012.

“I think it’s undisciplined and unprofessional. I’m getting quite tired of it,” said Francine Clark, a retired nurse from Henderson, Nev., throwing her hands in the air. Clark and her husband are supporting businessman Herman Cain.

Romney stands to gain the most if calls for a return to civility are perceived as a mandate to rally behind the race’s long-standing front-runner; polls consistently show he holds the best odds against Obama. 

But the other contenders aren’t going to let him coast to the nomination, leaving the former governor on the receiving end of the worst attacks. Romney is also at risk of losing his cool, coming across as defensive or failing to dodge some of the barrage.

Republicans who attended Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas said they observed Romney’s raised voice, patronizing tone and belittling body language — he planted his hand on rival Rick Perry’s shoulder at one point in an attempt to shush the Texas governor.

And, by getting under Romney’s skin, his rivals offered a playbook for the Obama team on how to rile the man the president could face on the debate stage.

The infighting also gives Democrats an opportunity to stockpile arguments against Romney and the others that Obama will be able to say came from Republicans themselves.

“What’s particularly devastating about these attacks on Romney yesterday is they aren’t just damaging in the primary. These are attacks that would be damaging in a general election campaign,” a senior Democratic official told The Hill.

Most useful to Obama is the GOP candidates’ use of Democrats’ own favorite jab at Romney: that he flip-flops on issues and bends to whatever influence he feels makes him more politically viable.

“That inconsistency, that inability to take a tough stand, is something that will resonate down the line,” the official said.

Case in point: David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, used bits from the debate to criticize the former governor in an interview Wednesday. Speaking on CBS’s “Early Show,” Axelrod called Romney’s response to Perry’s accusation that the former governor once employed illegal immigrants “the most unintentional revealing moment of the debate.”

During the debate, Romney conceded that he had hired a company to mow his lawn, and it was later been “pointed out” that the company hired illegal immigrants.

“We went to the company and we said, ‘Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property,’ ” Romney said. “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”

Axelrod slammed Romney for his reasoning. 

“Not that it was wrong or not that it was illegal, [but that] ‘I’m running for office,’” Axelrod said. “Time and time again, Gov. Romney switches from one position to another.”

— Alicia M. Cohn contributed to this report.